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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Our second civil war

The political weather is heating up. How do I know? Hits on this blog are at a recent high, with 400 yesterday. (For obvious reasons, they tend to peak over the weekend and on Monday and decline somewhat for the rest of the week.) But over 200 of those were directed from snopes.com and another web site exposing the fraudulent email under my name comparing Obama to Hitler. In addition, while I have been away two citizens have left voice mail messages on my home phone wanting to discuss that email. A new rise in traffic began during the debt ceiling crisis, and now it is higher still. I'm used to this, but it remains an interesting indicator of where the country is.

Two world views are at war. The first, represented rather weakly by President Obama, represents what is left of the governmental and economic structure which the Missionary (b. 1863-1883) and GI (about 1904-24) generations built up during the first half of the twentieth century. That system was a child of the Enlightenment and believed that reason, science, and research could help government improve society, and it gave us public education at all levels, city planning, strong labor unions, interstate highways, some mass transit, regulated banking and securities markets, and federal responsibility for the economy. The second world view has always been with us in some form but it entered a new phase in reaction to the triumph of the first world view in the early 1960s, and also in reaction to the civil rights movement. It professes what amounts to Social Darwinism and believes in unregulated markets of all kinds, from securities to labor, low if any taxes, and, now, religious values as the basis for our society. While it may not represent a majority, it certainly commands a majority of the enthusiasm in the country today. That is what the circulating email and the phone calls I receive show. None of my actual posts on this forum has ever gone viral, and I don't think a single stranger has ever called me to thank me for something that I have actually said. I'm not complaining, especially about no. 2, but this tells us what we need to know about the passion abroad in this country.

The Democratic Party remains a collection of interests representing an ideology which it has essentially been ashamed of, publicly at least, since Walter Mondale. The Republican Party, while it will have trouble picking a candidate, maintains an ideological discipline that would be the envy of the Communist Party of the USSR. In Thursday night's Iowa debate, any candidate who had ever done anything reasonable-- voted for a desperately needed tax increase, cooperated with Democrats, passed a health care law, or endorsed civil unions--was given an opportunity to confess, recant, and write a letter of self-criticism, and almost without exception, they did so. The determination of the Republicans has allowed them to force the debt ceiling crisis, the downgrade, and the roller coaster swing of the stock market this past week--all of which will work to the disadvantage of President Obama.

The stock market developments suggest that another crash could happen at almost any moment. We should not be surprised. It astonishes me to think that I lived the first forty years of my life--1947-87--without experiencing a single stock market panic. (The 1970s did, of course, see a long, gradual decline, but that was a very different kind of experience.) Since then we have had the S & L bust, the dot com bubble, and the housing bubble, and the story is not over yet. This is very similar to the aftermath of the Civil War. Then, too, the country was awash in money--civil war greenbacks, instead of unlimited loans from the federal reserve, today--and markets were unregulated. The system was ripe for abuse, and abuse happened.

The political market also shows many similarities. The wounds opened by the Civil War never really healed. The South took a huge step towards genuinely joining the rest of the nation under the New Deal, which won the hearts of poorer southerners of both races, but that process was reversed in much of the South in the 1950s and 1960s. The Republican Party emerged from the Civil War in a precarious state, and that was a major reason why it insisted on enfranchising the freedmen. After they began to lose the vote in the South, the two parties were more equal in strength than at any time in our history. 1876 was the first of five consecutive Presidential elections whose outcome could have been changed by the shifting of one state. The Congress also swung back and forth, violently. I still need to learn a lot more about that era, but I suspect the reason was that while millions of Americans were deeply dissatisfied with the state of the country, the political system was too corrupt to respond to their concerns. Sound familiar?

Beginning in 9/11, the Bush Administration managed to channel enormous energy into enterprises of dubious utility into the Middle East. They also managed to cripple the federal budget for the foreseeable future. The Obama Administration's failure to reverse any of these trends suggests, sadly, that under George W. Bush--whose entrance into the White House was extremely fortuitous--the Republicans won the decisive battles of the current civil war. To be sure, they provoked an electoral reaction in so doing in 2006 and 2008, but the recovered a lot of lost ground last year. Whether or not they can regain the White House, they are obviously more than sufficiently powerful now to prevent any fundamental change of national direction for some time. To take one very important example, as Paul Krugman pointed out yesterday, the Republicans have successfully moved the national debate from jobs to deficits, guaranteeing that unemployment will remain high. To take another, the Republicans may have packed the Supreme Court to the extent necessary for it to overturn the new health care law. I am inclined to believe that Anthony Kennedy will not, in fact, provide the fifth vote for that momentous decision, but I am not sure.

The period from 1868 to 1901 did not bring any candidates for Mt. Rushmore to the White House, and its only lasting legislative contribution--the Sherman Anti-trust Act--was passed more or less by accident. We can survive another such period. Alas, the generational rhythm of human life, clearly, does not allow for uninterrupted progress.


Bruce Post said...

Not more than ten years ago, one of my friends, a former Marine combat veteran of Khe Sanh turned Quaker, told me,"Soon, there will be three kinds of people in the world: the super rich, most everyone else, and the armed guards who keep them apart." I did not scoff at the time he made that statement, and I am certainly not scoffing now.

I also found interesting this excerpt from an interview economist Nouriel Roubini evidently gave to the Wall Street Journal:

"Karl Marx had it right. At some point, Capitalism can destroy itself. You cannot keep on shifting income from labor to Capital without having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand. That's what has happened. We thought that markets worked. They're not working. The individual can be rational. The firm, to survive and thrive, can push labor costs more and more down, but labor costs are someone else's income and consumption. That's why it's a self-destructive process."

Of course, the term "economy" finds its roots in the Greek word "oikos", which blends a sense of family, ecology and economy. Yet, the modern version of economy seems to me to bear very little resemblance to the Greek concept of oikos. The modern economy is at war both with family and ecology, and in a struggle like this, there are no winners.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for yet another fascinating and thought-provoking post. I am one of those that contributes to your weekend spike, anxious as I am for the unique and well-reasoned insights you provide.

One question: just exactly when did the objectively reasonable concept - that reason, science, and research could help government improve society - become unfashionable and/or shameful? I agree that such is the case, but I can't spot the point at which politicians would harm their election chances by stating publicly that Government may be best placed to protect the rights of all citizens and improve the collective good. I imagine it would be in the vicinity of the first Reagan Administration and the de-regulation occurring then.

In passing, I will say that I am grateful to the otherwise odious person who published the false email under your name. That was what initially brought your blog to my attention. The purported message was so outrageous that I had to verify the source - and I was heartened to have found the facts. I have looked forward to your comments ever since.

Bozon said...


Great essay. Really sets a tone.

I would just append, for completeness, that the second world view, that of unfettered markets at least, had also, ostensibly, been a child of the Enlightenment, Adam Smith, the Scottish Enlightenment, and all of that.

The social Darwinism baggage with the second view harks back to a Romantic, and Medieval, ethos, I would freely grant, not so much an Enlightenment one.

all the best,

Midwegian said...

As recently as Wed. 8/10/11, the notion of an impending 2nd Civil War was the topic of conversation during a weekly luncheon gathering of liberal women here in a small town in Kentucky.

When folks’ emotions are whipped up and they see that a perceived authority endorses their actions, they are easily molded into a pack or a ‘movement’, and feel justified in indulging in ‘righteous’ action, even violence. We had our own episode here in Lexington, KY in October 2010 when a Rand Paul organizer, stomped on the head and neck of a female MoveOn.org demonstrator he had pushed to the ground (he later blamed the police and bad luck for his subsequent arrest and trial).

I can’t get out of my head the strains of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, replete with ‘wrath’, ‘trampling’, ‘loosed lightning’, and ‘fierce swords’ all tied to God’s altars and His truth marching on. Add to this crusading rant the current enthronement of conservative bible thumping and ‘second amendment’ rights and it’s only a matter of time until this crosses over into violence; then we are all off to the races.

Such shaping of a group of people into a tool for the use of a chosen few who have a long-term hidden agenda is a certainly a hoary old technique. You’d think we would have caught on by now. Sad to say, we haven’t. Sadder to say, history is very likely to soon repeat itself.

Thank you for your thoughts and your blog. Hope you don't mind that I pass your entries along to others.

Anonymous said...

David, I am just ten years your elder. As I look back on the political leadership in my lifetime , I find President Eisenhower looking better and better.I think he managed , against great odds to hold his own against the forces of Social Darwinism of his day which were considerable.

Schleyer said...

Two citizens have left messages on your voice mail on you home phone?

Jeeze Professor, is it perhaps time to change your phone number? Or have it unlisted?

C.S. Marlatt said...

I too came to your blogsite this morning by way of the fraudulent email that was distributed online.

This may in fact be our third civil war as many who spearheaded the second civil war of our 60's counter culture movement have grown up to reject a biblical world view and now sit in the seats of our universities as department heads.

It's hard for me to understand why those who control the major university audiences of America have come to such negative conclusions concerning our national religious history or a Christian faith based philosophy in general. Nothing could be more beneficial for our nation, or the world, than if we were to adopt the basic commands of Jesus Christ as those by which we live: love God as He should be loved and love your neighbor as yourself. Neither are that difficult to do.

If the Bible represents God correctly the words Jesus spoke will be the determining factor of the future world. If it does not, the madness will continue to cycle through coming generations over and over.

With over 2,000 of the 2,500 plus Bible prophecies already having been fulfilled to the letter it's not hard to see why the Bible stands above all other spiritual writings as representing Truth.

Certainly the survival of the Jewish people against a human history frought with tyrants who saw their elimination as 'priority #1 speaks loudly as to God's ability to fulfill His determinations. With Israel now sitting again in the Holy Land - since 1948 and solidly since 1967 - a history professor might be wise to take a close look at the Bible prophecies concerning the Second Coming.

Anonymous said...

I just got back from a European vacation to Boston
from London late Sunday.

As luck would have it, I was seated beside a
Harvard student (class of 2013) on the return
flight. During 7+ hours of flight time we had
conversed about many topics. The young man
was returning from his European vacation after 2+
month stint interning at a hedge fund outfit
in Kansas City. Somehow the conversation touched
upon the disappearance of hot breakfast at
Harvard's houses due to austerity measures.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the hot breakfast issue was in part connected to class
of '69, who the young lad described as "troublemakers".

Al I can say after that is that there still might be
hope for Harvard and its students. Not all of them
will end up like the current president and think
that someone owes them something.

It was very refreshing to see such an outlook
that puts much more importance on diligence
and production and not entitlement!

Anonymous said...

Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.) slams president Obama
in an interview with KGW in Portland.

From the KGW report:

Asked whether he thought the President had a
shot at re-election, Defazio was skeptical.

“At this point it pretty much depends on how far
out there the Republican nominee is. You know
with a respectable--someone who is a little bit
toward the middle of the road--Republican
nominee, he’s going to have a very tough time
getting re-elected,” said DeFazio.

He’s also not convinced the President will do well
in Oregon.

“I believe Oregon is very much in play. I mean we
are one of the harder hit states in the union, particularly my part of the state. I've just done six
town hall meetings, have seven to go but people
are shaking their heads and saying 'I don't know if
I’d vote for him again.'” Defazio said.

Asked if he was surprised, the congressman shrugged.

“Not at all," DeFazio said. "One guy asked me, 'Give
me 25 words what he's about and what he’s done
for me.' I’m like, 'It could have been worse.'”


Anonymous said...

This is for anonymous who just came back from his European vacation. I do not believe that our current President thinks that someone owes him something. As for me I do not believe that either but I do believe that I deserve what I worked for and I also believe that even though the rich say that they worked hard for what they have I also believe there were others that helped them build that fortune and how were they treated. I guess that means they work harder than me and even though I have to pay taxes on every penny I make they shouldnt have to.I did not go to Harvard but I do not understand why the rich believe they should not pay taxes the same way I do and they want all these excemptions. Is it so people like me that work 12 hours a day will pick up their slack and they can continue to keep all their money while the others , the ones you say want something for nothing pay large amounts out of their checks for taxes. It's funny that while the system you so despise works for you it is a good one but when it helps the majority of the hard working class it's a bad idea and we want something for nothing. I wonder who is really getting a free ride?

A friend in St Paul said...

I'm one of those who found my way here after a relative sent me the email, wrongfully attributed to you, comparing President Obama to Hitler. (Imagine a conservative lying and then sending the lie to others! What's the world coming to?)

Anyway I'm glad to be here. Thanks for all your hard work.

A friend in St. Paul.